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Reviewed by Jason Foster
By David Lipsky
Vintage Books, New York

Some believe that there is a growing gap between the American military and the civilian world. To address the concern, Rolling Stone’s David Lipsky wrote an article about the young people matriculating to the United States Military Academy at West Point in the fall of 1998. That assignment sparked his imagination, and soon he was living in an apartment off campus, experiencing one of America’s most enduring institutions. The format for the ensuing book, Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point (Vintage Books, New York, softcover $14.95), consists largely of anecdotal accounts of cadets’ time at the academy. To bring the reader closer to cadet life, Lipsky highlights issues that students at other institutions deal with, but from a cadet’s viewpoint.

One major issue confronting the cadets is dating, and in a broader sense, the role of women in the Army. The men seem to dislike the social reengineering of the military at their expense; the women are caught between the postfeminist culture of empowerment and the goals of getting married and starting a family. Usually the issue is resolved in one of two ways: The men either date the women or ignore them.

Next is the emerging issue of professionalism in the military. In the late 1990s the Army began experimenting with ways to improve retention among junior officers and noncommissioned officers by reorganizing according to business models. The rationale is that this will help the Army to compete with higher-paid professionals in the civilian world. But some are dissatisfied, believing this approach is counterproductive to recruiting and retaining selfless leaders.

Absolutely American is ostensibly about the transformation of teenagers into leaders. But the real story is not about the cadets–it is about the transformation of David Lipsky. The one career field that his father prohibited was the military, and in the preface Lipsky admits that when he began the book, he did not realize that “soldiers are people too.” Lipsky is representative of many Americans today, to whom the military is strange and foreign, something associated with World War II, Vietnam or the nightly news. But watching the lives of these remarkable young people brings us closer to the elite world of West Point. By graduation, these cadets have been changed forever, and the reader cannot help but feel pride in the people who have walked, and those who will one day walk, the long gray line.